July was another strong month for employment in South Carolina, with the Charleston region continuing to outperform other metro areas, particularly in job gains for the hospitality and tourism sector.
The local hospital workforce is swelling in numbers this year, boosted by the opening of a towering children's hospital downtown, major renovation projects and a new hospital in Berkeley County.
The four area hospital systems are adding at least 1,150 jobs together by the end of 2019. Given the latest numbers from the Charleston Regional Development Alliance, the additions represent a roughly 5 percent increase in employment.
It's a low estimate, one that doesn't fully capture the entire field of medical workers who work in independent practices and for other companies.
The year has already been one of striking expansion for the Charleston region's health care industry. The Medical University of South Carolina bought four out-of-town hospitals and unveiled the long-awaited Shawn Jenkins Children's Hospital. Roper St. Francis is opening a 50-bed hospital in Berkeley County, the first full-service facility there in years. And Trident Health is in the midst of a $100 million update to its Summerville Medical Center.
By far the greatest increase in jobs in the hospital industry this year comes from the children's hospital, which is projected to add between 600 and 800 positions on its own. MUSC also opened a children's pavilion in North Charleston earlier this year, and plans to open another campus at Citadel Mall in December.
Hospitals tend to grow in response to population increases, said Tina Wirth, senior vice president of talent advancement at the Charleston Metro Chamber of Commerce. People have been flocking to the region for years, and in 2019, a number of capital projects years in the making are being finalized. The chamber's research predicts the medical field will add 3,700 jobs between 2017 and 2022, trailing only the manufacturing and tourism industries.
Overall, the Charleston region has added 8,400 jobs since July 2018, outpacing the rest of the state, according to numbers released Friday by the S.C. Department of Employment and Workforce.
Berkeley County, the second-fastest growing county in South Carolina, has attracted hospital companies' attention for new development.
"They are reacting to the demands of the marketplace," Wirth said.
Roper St. Francis' $117 million hospital in Berkeley County will open in October, adding 300 new jobs. The new complex is situated not far from the Carnes Crossroads development in Goose Creek, where competing billboards line the road and advertise hospital companies' offerings. "Doctors in your neighborhood," one for Roper St. Francis reads.
Trident Health, which operates Trident Medical Center and Summerville Medical Center, is adding 140 full-time employees this year. Forty of those jobs are at the system's outlying physician's offices, said Todd Gallati, CEO of Trident Health. That represents a typical amount of growth for the hospital system. The number of patients admitted to the hospital system has grown by 3 percent this year, Gallati said.
35,000 square feet have been added to Summerville Medical Center, where the population has been rapidly growing for years.
On the other side of Interstate 26, Trident Medical Center is also getting a facelift. Thirty-four new beds will be added there, along with 10 beds in an intensive care unit.
East Cooper Medical Center in Mount Pleasant is adding 60 positions this year, Patrick Downes, its CEO, said.
Jobs added in the hospital industry are also high-paying. The average annual wage for Charleston health care practitioners is $77,770, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
The wage is about half that for health care support staff, however. Wirth said while some entry-level jobs do not offer high wages, the health care industry excels in offering its workforce educational opportunities.
"Where hospitals have been amazing is that a lot of them will work to upscale their own staff," she said.
Part of the reason for that investment in people already working for hospitals is a shortage in workers across health care professions. More nurses are constantly needed.
"That is a profession that is almost always in demand in our hospitals," Gallati said.
One report suggests South Carolina will have the fourth-highest nursing shortage in the country by 2030.
A projected labor crunch within South Carolina's health care industry could be approaching critical status.
In the last couple of years, Gallati said it has been harder to find mid-career nurses.
Among the 300 people needed to staff Roper St. Francis' new hospital, nurses have been the most difficult to hire, said Jennifer Crawford, the chief nurse at the new outpost.
"Everybody is trying to get the best of the best," she said.
Crawford, who is in charge of the hiring effort, said many current employees asked to be moved to the Berkeley Hospital. Approved years ago when the area population was smaller, Roper St. Francis is already expecting to expand the Berkeley Hospital.
More jobs could be in the pipeline: All three of the hospital systems have plans to keep building.